Academic journal article Parergon

The Grammar of the Heart: Emblems and Theatrical Strategies in John Ford's Tragedies

Academic journal article Parergon

The Grammar of the Heart: Emblems and Theatrical Strategies in John Ford's Tragedies

Article excerpt

I. Emblems Onstage: A Question of Accessibility

John Ford is one of the few early modern playwrights, second only to Shakespeare, together with Christopher Marlowe, John Webster, and Ben Jonson, whose plays have survived the challenge of time and the revolution of realism on the stage. Although his connections with emblem culture have been widely analysed, the theatrical implications of the allegorical elements displayed alongside the love stories in some of his works have been assessed only superficially. (1) These allegories hint at hidden aspects of the protagonists' affects: they work as symbolic correlates to the plot lines and sort out apparent contradictions in the characters' moral stances to vindicate the ineffable nature of love. (2) Such an interpretation fits within the general context of contemporary beliefs about the individual and its social and ethical dimensions. As Thomas Hobbes indicates in Leviathan (1651), '[N]or is it the Death of the Witnesse, but the Testimony it self that makes the Martyr: for the word signifieth nothing else, but the man that beareth Witnesse'. (3) In this article, I would like to argue that emblematic constructions work in Ford's plays as testimonies of the characters' consciences in 'self-designation of the testifying subject'. (4)

Peter M. Daly makes the truth-value of emblems dependent on 'contexts of reference and validation' that conformed to the worldview of the early modern period. (5) He considers auctoritas, the Christian and classical traditions, as the mechanism that enabled such artefacts to confer moral and aesthetic value to the narratives displayed in their pictures and texts. According to this principle, the actions represented in emblems may be read as motives, and their agents can be held morally responsible for the consequences of these actions. (6) The cognitive operations involved in the use of emblems invite the reader/spectator to transcend the physical/historical level of the action and become moral witnesses; that is, to connect the assertion of a certain reality with its ethical consequence.

Of Ford, it has been said: 'His syntax is loose and disconnected; his images turgid or facile, often deliberately obscure.' (7) Irving Wardle's words express the disgust towards Ford's mature tragedies that has lingered for decades, even centuries, among professional literary and drama critics, as well as theatrical producers and directors. One of the causes of this emotional and aesthetic distancing lies in Ford's use of symbolic references common to all artistic or scientific disciplines that addressed human passions at the time, emblems among them. To consider whether these visual and linguistic borrowings were mere fanciful rhetorical ornamentation or a substantial part of Ford's dramatic fabric should help to contextualise these dual-natured creations within the representational practices of early seventeenth-century England. (8)

Were the connections between words and images in these compositions intended as potential sources for new esoteric meanings? Theoretically, emblems targeted wide audiences, their semantics being made apparent by the continuity between visual and verbal components, a faculty of the prelapsarian language that emblematists claimed as the origin of their practice. (9) On the other hand, their final sense was frequently made dependent on knowledge of complex sets of rules, a secret syntax that controlled, in an artificial or even arbitrary manner, the connections between both elements and their intended meaning. Sir John Harington's prefatory matter to his translation of Lodovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso offers some hints. The first document, 'A Brief Apologie of Poetrie', praises dramatic poets because their works have proved, in spite of their complexity, 'profitable for the actiue life of man'; that is, powerful instruments of social instruction. (10) A second text, 'An advertisement to the reader before he reade this poeme, of some things to be Observed', explains how the material aspects of printing contributed to the reader's comprehension. …

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